MISSOULA — A petition urging Congress to restore the defunct North Coast Hiawatha passenger rail route — which formerly ran through Missoula, Helena, Bozeman, Billings, Glendive and Miles City, among others cities — is now online for people to sign.
Students at the University of Montana, along with help from the Montana Public Interest Research Group (MontPIRG), are working to rallying support from students at 25 other colleges and universities along the passenger train route, which stretches from Seattle to Chicago.
The route was operational until 1979. A congressionally mandated feasibility study was completed by Amtrak in October, and a petition urging Congress to fund restoration of the rail route was launched by Missoula residents in December.
So far, 1,200 signatures have been gathered.
MontPIRG Board Chair Jared Trilling is in Washington, D.C., this week delivering the collected signatures to Sen. Jon Tester, who supports restoring the passenger rail route. However, students and advocates of the proposal will continue to collect signatures.
Last week, MontPIRG posted the petition to its Web site to make signature gathering more accessible and convenient.
Restoring the line is one of the top priorities for UM students, who sent a letter recently to student governments at other universities along the route, hoping that they, too, will collect signatures urging Congress to fund restoration of the passenger rail line.
They argue that restoring the line would reduce greenhouse gas emissions, allow greater mobility at a smaller cost, create jobs and bolster the economy.
“We want people to know it’s not just Montanans who want this service,” said Nancy Wilson, director of ASUM Transportation. “There are really a lot of people.”
But students are certainly not the only ones advocating for the operation of the North Coast Hiawatha route. Missoula Councilman Dave Strohmaier convened a conference call this fall among advocates in Montana and neighboring states to coordinate efforts to try to make this project a reality. He’s reached out to the Missoula Area Chamber of Commerce and is “looking for those opportunities to collaborate with other stakeholders,” he said.
At the same time, Strohmaier adds, “It’s really in the lap of elected officials at this point.”
But that’s why strong grass-roots support is important, he said. It lets elected leaders know they have constituent backing for a project that has been estimated to cost around $1 billion.
However, others assert it could cost less, especially if the railroad companies shoulder a portion of the cost.